In January 1996, journalists found two freshly graded areas of soil straddling a dirt track in the village of Glogova, in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina.The larger patch to the south, 20 yd. by 50 yd. (46 m by 18 m) in size, revealed the shattered remains of human beings: a splintered femur amid rubber boots; a broken skull, barely distinguishable from the smooth white stones surrounding it; a jawbone still holding nine teeth. The patch to the north held its own evidence of atrocity: a torn, stained bandage; a split limb still bearing flesh; the rich, sweet smell of human decay.
Twelve and a half years ago, when the corpses in these mass graves were still fresh, the arrest of Radovan Karadzic might have made a difference. True, the world knew even then that the so-called president of the breakaway Serb region of Bosnia and Herzegovina was more the foreman than the architect of the worst massacres in Europe since World War II: the siege of Sarajevo, which killed at least 10,000 people, and the slaughter at Srebrenica, which killed more than 7,000 men, some of whose bodies had filled the site at Glogova. It was former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in jail in 2006, who had hatched and orchestrated the overall plan for the ethnic cleansing and violent division of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But Karadzic, who was arrested Monday in Serbia, had been indicted by an international court in the Hague for ordering the attacks on Sarajevo and Srebrenica. For the surviving victims and their families, he had become the personification of the war's brutality. His timely capture and trial held the prospect of justice for Bosnians who had suffered. Many argued his arrest was necessary if the country was to reunite in peace. And for the world that had watched and done little as genocide unfolded in Bosnia, Karadzic's arrest held out hope of a postcold war order that might prevent similar killings in the future.
Karadzic was an unlikely character to play on the historical stage. A peasant's son who never felt fully at ease in Sarajevo, he was an unsuccessful psychiatrist and a dismal poet. He made his feelings about the city clear, first in verse when he wrote a stanza that read "Let's go down to the cities to kill the scumbags," and later when he decamped to the hills around Sarajevo to oversee the shelling of its civilians. In one typically pompous display, he unveiled to a room of sycophants a Styrofoam mock-up of a "New Sarajevo" that he said would rise from the muddy village of Pale that served as his wartime headquarters.
After the war, he fled first to the Bosnian hinterlands and then to neighboring Serbia, where nationalist authorities gave him safe harbor. Those who lived through the war will be happy to see Karadzic in shackles. But they will consider it injustice if the authorities in Serbia, after refusing to arrest him for more than a decade, leverage his belated capture for their goal of closer integration with Europe (E.U. talks on the matter are set to begin Tuesday). And if there was a moment when his arrest would have helped reunite Bosnia, it has long passed. The country has limped along, still effectively divided into three sections led by members of the parties that fought the war, sustained only by international aid and NATO forces.
As for the West's dreams of expiation, Karadzic's arrest even years ago would never have made up for the fact that Europe and the U.S., seemingly invincible with victory in the cold war, had been unwilling for three and a half years to stop a small-time thug from unleashing genocide in Europe. In fact, the failure to stop Karadzic or to bring him to justice, along with the failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, did produce soul-searching in the West. When Bill Clinton ordered the attack on Milosevic's forces in Kosovo, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others hoped that the U.S. was leading the way to an era of humanitarian intervention based on international law.
This seems like a pipe dream now. After the furor caused by America's preemptive invasion of Iraq, it's hard to imagine the U.S. mustering the credibility necessary for a Kosovo-like humanitarian intervention for at least a generation. Sudan provides ready evidence of that. The International Criminal Court recently indicted Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes in Darfur. Given America's post-Iraq reputation, some combination of European, Asian and African leadership would be needed to bring al-Bashir to justice, but even this is unlikely. On the same day that Karadzic was arrested, 13 years after his first indictment, the African Union asked the U.N. Security Council for a one-year delay in taking action against al-Bashir.
The lesson of the slow response to Karadzic and the Bosnian Serbs is that inaction can breed greater disorder. When tensions mounted in 1992, few in the West realized how little it would take for Milosevic and Karadzic to exploit the ethnic hatred caused by World War II 50 years earlier, or how rapidly the fighting could spread over the peninsula. If Karadzic's timely arrest stood a chance of blunting the legacy of the victims of Srebrenica and Sarajevo, his belated capture surely doesn't.